In the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, kids have heard plenty bits and pieces of panicked conversations among adults about hurricanes. Or maybe they’ve caught TV glimpses of past destruction, or there’s yet another storm on the way and they see parents stockpiling their supply of water and batteries. All of this can be more than a little bit frightening for young kids.
So what’s a parent to do if a child seems frightened about what may happen — or has already occurred — with the weather? SheKnows spoke with Dr. Paul Coleman, a psychiatrist and expert in the treatment of PTSD, anxiety disorders and grief (and author of the book Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces), to talk about how parents can address these fears.
“Parents need to look for signs of anxiety and pay attention to what kids are saying about storms and weather,” Dr. Coleman said. “If kids do express fear, parents need to manage that fear in the best way possible.”
To do this, he offers a simple-to-remember acronym — SAFE — based on four points:
S — Search for hidden concerns
Listening allows you to detect hidden fears if they are there. Take time to see if there is something behind a child’s question. For example, a child’s question might be, “Will a hurricane hurt us?” Unless the child is age 5 or under, a simple “no” might miss some bigger questions. Has the child seen something that would have prompted that question? Does he know someone who got hurt from a storm? A question such as “why are there hurricanes?” may actually mean “will there be another one like the one we had before?” If there has already been some major loss or emotional upset in the family, fear of storms may be piggybacking on grief.
Don’t have “drive-thru” conversations that are quick. Take time to fully listen and understand. Without a full understanding of what the child is really concerned about, you may be trying to “fix” the wrong problem. A child may be secretly worried because a parent has a job that takes them outside or puts them in harm’s way of a storm (a driver, a pilot, construction worker, etc.).
A less talkative child can be asked to draw a picture of what is on his or her mind. The picture might give many hints as to the degree of worry the child has.
A – Continue routine actions
Get them to do their homework, make sure that dinner is on time, keep reading bedtime stories and so forth to show the child that their world is fairly predictable and therefore reassuring.
F — Feelings
Make sure children feel understood and like you have really heard them before you offer a different viewpoint. Saying “there’s nothing to worry about” will not necessarily help children who are indeed worried; instead it might make them feel that expressing their concerns does not help. You can, however, correct the false beliefs behind the feelings.
It’s important to validate that their feelings make sense in some way. For example: “I remember being afraid of storms when I was your age,” or “a lot of kids get scared by storms” or “even the dog gets scared.” At the same time, you want to let the child know that steps are being taken to make them safe.
E — Ease minds
Even if there is some real risk of adversity (and if so, precautions have hopefully been taken), a parent needs to ultimately be reassuring that even if a storm is big and potentially can cause damage, it is something that can be cleaned up later. Hasty reassurances might give the wrong message. Take time to listen before a knee-jerk response is given. Give specific reasons a child should feel safe. A general “don’t worry, it will be OK” is not specific enough. Tell the child why you are not worried and what steps have been taken to reduce harm.
Ready.gov provides a host of actions for kids to take before, during and after a hurricane that may help put some kids’ minds at ease. They include things like writing a family communication plan to be used in case a hurricane strikes and practical reminders, such as not opening refrigerator or freezer doors and staying away from windows during a hurricane.